Madilyn Stowe Blog Wrong, Wrongheaded on Alimony

March 6, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

This article asks the burning question “Should Men Get Spousal Maintenance?” (Marilyn Stowe, 2/23/16) Unfortunately, it doesn’t answer it even though the doing so would seem to be simplicity itself. The Marilyn Stowe Blog frequently comes up with ill-considered posts, and this one is a good example. The writer, Cameron Paterson, is vague on most of the important concepts regarding his subject and downright wrong on a few. The good news is that he ultimately has the good sense to quote a writer, Emma Johnson, who actually has a clear idea of what to do about alimony.

Alimony has come under fire in several states, not as a concept as it should have been, but in the way it’s administered. As I’ve said before, the entire concept of alimony is, with certain minor exceptions, dubious. It’s based on the notion that women can’t – and shouldn’t be expected to – work for a living. It’s also based on the concept that divorce is fault-based and rare, so that anyone marrying has a reasonable expectation that it’s for life. Finally, alimony is based on the idea that men are the ones likely to break up the marriage, should that occur.

Every one of those notions is false. Essentially no one in today’s society would say that women should have no obligation to support themselves and of course many do, some of them better than their male partners. Plus, divorce is as common as dirt, so everyone who walks down the aisle understands that the marriage they’re embarking on may end at any time. Among other things, that’s because divorce no longer requires a finding of fault on either person’s part. “Irreconcilable differences,” or words to that effect, are intoned in family courtrooms many times a day Monday through Friday, every week of the year.

And finally, 70% of marriages are dissolved by women. So the final basis for alimony is out.

Now, I continue to argue that, in some cases, alimony is necessary. When one spouse is disabled, a divorcing spouse should be required to supplement whatever disability benefits the first receives, in order to provide a reasonable standard of living. The same is true when one spouse is very old and unable to work and earn.

But beyond those exceptions, alimony shouldn’t exist. Period. That’s based on the sensible principle that every adult should be responsible for their own behavior. If one spouse went to medical school and became a highly-paid surgeon and the other has a degree in Education and teaches third grade, why should the latter receive alimony from the former? The second spouse’s standard of living will certainly drop in the event of divorce, but shouldn’t that be expected? No other school teacher in the country expects to live like a wealthy surgeon, so why should our hypothetical spouse? The teacher made the choice to pursue that career, which is altogether an honorable one, but it doesn’t pay well, a fact known to the person when he/she began it.

But alimony law still relies on the false assumptions above.

Meanwhile, Paterson seems to think that alimony awards are only made to spouses who opted out of their careers in order to care for children.

Many suggest no, that in the (sic) most women are capable of earning their own money and should stand on their own two feet. I understand this point of view but would argue that the courts should recognise when a woman has been genuinely disadvantaged by giving up work. The maternal career break can, unfortunately, make women less employable or slow down their careers…

But what happens when the wife earns more than the husband? What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander too. If a wife enjoys a successful career and brings home more than her spouse, it makes perfect sense to many for the man to give up work when children come along.

But of course whether one spouse’s lesser earnings are due to childcare or not is irrelevant in every jurisdiction of which I’m aware. What’s relevant is who earns more. If the husband earns more, he pays the wife alimony in an amount and for a time according to the statute of the particular jurisdiction.

That’s not the only thing Paterson gets wrong.

But times have changed and those old social norms have now become stereotypes. Most women now pursue a career even if they marry and some become very successful.

Actually, in the United States, only 56% of women are even in the workforce, meaning they’re either employed or actively looking for work. About 5% of those don’t have jobs, so the percentage of women actually working is about 53. And a huge number of those work at jobs, not careers.

But Paterson’s happy world is “full of women earning their own way, climbing the corporate ladder.” So replete is his world that he repeats the canard that’s become part of the popular narrative on the issue of women, men and work.

[Emma Johnson] points out the huge discrepancy between the number of households in the US in which the wife reportedly earns more than the husband – a remarkable 40 per cent – and the number of men receiving alimony from ex-wives: about three per cent of all recipients.

But of course that 40% figure is bunk, particularly the way Paterson phrases it. Had he said that 40% of American households have a woman as the primary breadwinner, he’d at least have gotten that datum correct. But, as I’ve said before, the fact that 40% of households have a woman as the main earner isn’t the same as saying that in 40% of households the woman out-earns the man. That’s what Paterson said, and he’s flat wrong. The reason there are so many female primary earners is that they live in households in which there is no man. They’re competing for the title against their kids. The rise in female primary earners reflects the rise in single-motherhood far more than any other factor. In fact, about 13% of couples who are married or cohabiting have a woman as the main breadwinner.

Johnson is still correct. With only 3% of alimony recipients being male, that’s still a huge discrepancy. Women are over four times as likely to be awarded alimony as men, but Paterson’s figure is just wrong.

As I said, even though Paterson never answers his own question, at least he manages to refer readers to someone smarter than he about alimony. As Paterson says, Emma Johnson, writing in Forbes, made the salient point.

It’s interesting to note that the same journalist has written an article arguing that women should give up alimony altogether. Her first reason?

“An end of alimony would force each person to be financially responsible for themselves.”

Exactly. As I said before, people should take responsibility for themselves and not depend on others, particularly those whom they no longer like, for their support. An end to alimony would promote that. It would also help to end the paternalistic notion that women can’t or shouldn’t be asked to support themselves.

And of course it would tend to equalize parenting. If adults understood that taking ten or fifteen years off of work to care for kids wouldn’t be reimbursed post-divorce, they’d be powerfully encouraged to divide the job more evenly both during and after marriage. Kids would see the necessity of self-reliance and, more importantly, would grow up with both parents actively and equally involved in their lives.

That’s called gender equality. It’s also called parental equality. And finally, it’s called good for children. Predictably, NOW and other feminist groups adamantly oppose any reform of alimony laws. That’s what they’re doing in Florida right now, as the state legislature considers improving its alimony legislation.

But for the rest of us, alimony itself is outdated and tends to encourage behaviors that are antithetical to a just, fair and egalitarian society. Reform of alimony laws is all very well and should be supported. But the real goal should be the end of a legal tradition that undermines so much of what we say we hold dear.


National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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